Into The Snake Pit: Racial Integration At Jamestown

The video promoting racial integration started playing on Folsom’s internal television network sometime in early 2008. It depicted interviews with prisoners of different races who, presumably, had been at a prison where racial integration had already been implemented. They seemed to be happy with the new policy and expressed satisfaction with the newfound, relaxed relationship that the different races enjoyed on the yard.

I recognized one of the interviewees, he was somebody I knew from the county jail, and I’d always thought he was an all-around good guy. Nonetheless, the nature of the video made me suspect that he might be “reporting” from a protective custody yard, which seemed like it would’ve been the right place to start if the Department of Corrections was trying to implement a policy of racially integrated housing.

The fellas on the yard concurred. “All those dudes in that video are pieces of shit, ” they said (Pieces of shit, by the way, is prison parlance for anybody who lives on a protective custody yard, such as sex offenders, gang dropouts, and snitches). “There’s no way in hell that happened in general population, otherwise we would’ve heard about it by now,” another chimed in. This was true, word travels faster than one might think between the various prison populations in California.

As expected, the homeboys made sure everybody knew what the attitude towards such a policy would be if and when it happened. “No fucking way. We won’t do it. You won’t do it. None of us will ever, ever, take a cell with a Black dude. We’ll riot if we have to”. That was settled. Since there was no real way, yet, of knowing how the CDCR was going to try to implement this interracial housing policy, which came as the result of a recent Supreme Court decision, there was no real way to devise a strategy for dealing with it.

The interview ducats started arriving shortly after the video began airing. We were all expected to individually report to our housing unit’s Lieutenant for an interview about racial integration. Clerks from within the administrative offices started leaking to the rest of the population what the interviews would entail so we had time to game plan. Mandatory meetings with our keyholders or their representative were called in order to prepare us for the questions (see: “Penitentiary Politics: An Overview“).

In sum, we learned that the Lieutenant would ask a very short list of questions regarding our racial status, our participation in racially organized groups, and what we would do if directed to house with a member of a different race. Our instructions on the yard were simple, we’d tell the Lieutenant exactly what he wanted to hear. We were White, we were not a part of any racially organized groups, and we had no problems with members of different races or housing with them. I had no idea whatsoever what instructions members of other races received, if any, though I imagine the Surenos were advised similarly.

My interview came and went without any hiccups. I both lied and told the truth when I was asked about how I would respond to integrated housing. I didn’t have a problem with members of another race and housing with them, which was true, and I would do as asked when directed to share a cell with one, which was, of course, a lie. I got the impression during the interview that it was routine and relatively unimportant to the Lieutenant how I actually answered the questions. He was basically creating a legal document to be used against me if and when I refused housing with a member of another race. I imagined my future disciplinary hearing during which the Lieutenant would wave my interview’s record sheet while saying, “But Inmate Hahn, you said you would house peacefully with members of others races. Were you lying to me?”.

The video stopped airing. The interviews were completed. And all talk of racial integration faded from discussion on the yard. That was the spring of 2008.

During the fall of that same year, as I was preparing to go to classification and, hopefully, get transferred to a prison in Jamestown where I would be able to do firefighter training, rumors of experiments with integrated housing started to filter in. There had been some riots. There had been a work strike. Hundreds of people had gone to the hole. And it had all happened at the Level 2 yard at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, where I was hoping to go.

I had my annual classification hearing in December of 2008 and was on the bus from Folsom to Jamestown a couple of weeks later. Though I was excited to be leaving the three yard, a serious knot formed in my stomach as I pondered the situation at the prison I was headed to. I hadn’t been in Jamestown for long when I was given the run-down.

While still in the holding tanks in Receiving and Release, waiting to be housed, the White clerk approached the Woods in the cage. “So, they’re doing integrated housing,” he said and then paused. “All housing is random.  You might get lucky, you probably won’t. All the White boys are refusing.”

“And what’s happening?” I asked.

“It’s a 115.  90 days.  Some guys are getting program failure and having their eligibility for camp rescinded for 120 days.”

This was bad news for a number of reasons.  First of all, I had 29 points, which was right on the cusp of Level 2 (See: “Classifying A Prisoner“). I couldn’t afford a write-up.  If I got any points, I might be sent right back to the Level 3 yard I came from. I started to formulate the potential consequences of this integrated housing project and my mandatory refusal. My plan was falling apart.

This plan of mine was to get to fire camp, where inmates serve as wild land firefighters for Cal-Fire. It was a good gig.  Camps had good food, more humane surroundings, higher paying wages, opportunities to work in hobby shops (where we could do woodworking, painting, metalworking, etc), and was a far cry from the misery of life behind the walls. Most importantly, for me at least, was that my release date would come more than a year and half earlier once I got there. I had to get to fire camp. I had negotiated my original plea bargain of 14 years with the assumption that I would eventually get there.

Jamestown was one of two prisons in the state of California to have the wild land firefighter training program and I was preparing to refuse a bunk that might prevent me from taking part. Even if I didn’t get sent away from Jamestown, even if I just got a write-up and had my transfer to camp delayed 6 or so months, every single day I spent not in fire camp meant I would parole just a bit later (I was serving 50% of my sentence behind the walls, and would serve 33% in fire camp).  This was a nightmare and it was one in which I had virtually no options.  If I accepted a bunk with someone of a different race, I would receive a severe beat-down and would most certainly never get to fire camp. My only chance at camp was to refuse, even if I had to get there later.

I, along with the other inmates from the cage, was eventually given my property and filed out to the yard’s office, where we received our housing assignments.  A handful of guards escorted us to the dormitories we’d been assigned to.  When we approached Dorm 23, where I was supposed to be living, the guards made us stay outside while one of them opened the door and directed everyone inside to get onto their bunks.

The officer returned outside and directed me to come in.  Three or four guards stood beside the door as I entered.  I stood in the middle of the dorm.  All the men were sitting on their bunks, wearing their boots.  All eyes were on me.  My heart was racing. “What’s your name, inmate?” the guard asked.

“Hahn.”

“Alright Hahn, this is your assigned bunk.”  He pointed to the double rack with an empty top bunk immediately beside us. “Will you accept this housing?”

I looked at the lower bunk and saw a Mexican guy, probably a Sureno, sitting on it. “No,” I said.  “I won’t take that bunk.”

“Are you refusing this housing assignment?”

“Yes, I am”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes”.

“I’ll give you a moment to decide,” the guard responded while walking to the door of the dormitory. I followed him out. Once outside, I was directed by the guards to return to the yard office in order to receive my new housing assignment.

I joined a small crowd of men who had also refused their housing. We stood on the yard with our garbage bags full of personal property and watched as the guards repeated the ritual with other prisoners at different dormitories. One guard would go in and then come back out. Then he would go back in with the new prisoner in tow. I noticed that the guards outside would leave the dormitory unlocked and place their hands on their billy clubs, readying for action. I was starting to get a better idea of what was happening.

When a White or Sureno prisoner was getting housed with someone of a different race, the course of events was predictable. Guard in, inmate in, and then, just thirty seconds or so later, guard out and inmate out.

With Black or Other prisoners, it wasn’t quite the same. The guard would go in and the inmate would follow, but when the guard came back out, it usually took a minute or two for the inmate to emerge through the doorway of the dormitory. During this time, the guards waited outside the door in high alert, presumably listening for the sounds of fighting. There was no noticeable difference in the way the guards performed their housing ritual, but there was a definite difference in the way that prisoners of different races behaved. There was only one possible reason for this: Blacks and Others had different instructions for integrated housing than the Whites and Surenos. This was a firecracker waiting to go off.

Each inmate that went into the dorm walked into a snake pit, and the guards knew it. They knew it enough to wait outside the dormitory with their billy clubs and pepper spray on ready. They knew they were asking the inmates to do something that was putting their personal safety at risk, yet the only people who would pay the price would be the inmates themselves. A riot and write-ups, if they took the bunk, or a write-up, if they didn’t.

Out of the dozen or so people I was housed with that day, only one had a winning lottery ticket. The rest of us refused our housing, marched back to the yard office, were informed that we’d be receiving as CDC-115, and were given new housing with a member of our own race.

What was my mother going to say when I had to tell her why I was going to be coming home later, I thought. I felt an intense amount of shame.

Ironically, I was sent back to Dorm 23 for housing. No guards escorted me. I waited outside for a guard to walk by and was let in. I had a double bunk with a White bunky, just beside the original bunk I had refused. Why couldn’t they have just assigned me to this bunk in the first place?  I lamented.

Upon arrival, I learned much more about the goings-on at Sierra Conservation Center. The Blacks and Others did, in fact, have different instructions which is why they took longer to come out of the dorm. They were not required to refuse and they were informed of this when they came into the dorm. They were told by their shotcallers that it was their choice to take a bunk with a man of a different race and that they’d have their back when the fighting started. Ninety-five percent of the time, the Blacks or Others refused the bunk, but every once in awhile they didn’t. Fortunately, it never happened in a dorm that I lived in.

When Jamestown had first started the integrated housing, there was an enormous work strike on the part of the inmates. Operations slowed to a crawl and hundred of inmates received CDC-115’s for work refusal.  Many hundreds more received CDC-115’s for refusal of a housing assignment. Countless people were escorted to the hole for dorm fights, receiving CDC-115’s for participation in a riot.

By the time I’d arrived at Jamestown, integrated housing had been a reality for just over a month. The disciplinary paperwork was so backed-up that the Lieutenants and their clerks couldn’t keep up. This ended up being beneficial for me. My write-up wasn’t processed in time, or at all, and I ended up never getting served a CDC-115. I’ve conjectured that I may have been housed at the same time as shift change, which may have helped me out as well. Most of the men around me weren’t so lucky.

If I had to make an estimate, I’d guess that there had been over one thousand write-ups associated with integrated housing, ranging in penalties of 30 to 90 days loss of good time. Couple that with people being held back from camp for the duration of their disciplinary periods, and my guess would be that more than 100 years of additional time had been added to the prisoners’ collective release dates by time I left Jamestown in March of 2009.

Integrated housing was a failed experiment and it ended less than six months after it began. The Supreme Court would have to wait. I think it still does.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Into The Snake Pit: Racial Integration At Jamestown

  1. Wow. Even though I know race is a big factor among inmates, this is still shocking. It sheds light on how ingrained and untenable the race issue is in the prison system. Interesting to consider how prison seems like another world, but probably contributes to or reveals societal racism.

    1. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. How much of the racism in prison is present in the outside world but completely under the surface? I’ve also thought that many of the more abhorrent things I saw in there were, in fact, very normal in the sense that they are exactly what one would expect when people are forced to live with each other 24 hours a day with limited space and resources.

  2. In the women’s units, it’s not an issue. We lived together, ate together, worked and played together . There were also mixed race relationships on the yards (of course any relationship is illegal regardless of the race). Many women had beautiful mixed race children.

    In 7 years, I had dozens of cellmates. I never cared about their race. I did care about their character. That has nothing to do with race.

    Thanks for sharing this. What can be done about this very real and serious issue in the men’s prisons? Is there any hope? I’m reminded of the young men and women who risked their lives during the civil rights movement to make change. Too many lost their lives to make a difference.What can be done now, inside and out, to stop racism?

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